Questions About Iceland
All About Iceland
Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for mature-aged travellers, providing adventure and educational programs to small groups since 1983. Odyssey has built up a reasonable knowledge bank to answer questions about Iceland that travellers are likely to ask, as they make their plans to tour independently, or with us as part of a small group tour. We hope that this list of frequently asked questions and the answers we provide will help you with planning your next holiday.
Read on, but please do not hesitate to contact us via the website, or through email or chat if you have more questions about Iceland or our other tours.
1. Where is Iceland located?
Iceland is a geologically active island located in the North Atlantic. This island country is fairly isolated–its nearest neighbour in Europe is Scotland, lying 800 kilometres (500 miles) away. The capital is Reykjavík. It takes roughly five hours to fly to Reykjavík from New York, and three hours from London.
2. How did Iceland get its name?
Iceland was said to have been given its name by a grieving Viking named Flóki Vilgerðarson, who lost his daughter to the sea en route to the new settlement, and lost his livestock to the harsh winter. According to the Icelandic sagas, a collection of heroic prose narratives written in the 13th century, Flóki climbed up a mountain and saw the fjord Vatnsfjörður filled with ice, and named the place Iceland. It was the name that stuck, even though the spring ice that Flóki saw may have drifted from ice-covered Greenland (which was named as such by the Viking Erik the Red in some sort of medieval marketing ploy to entice people to settle).
Before Flóki, the sagas say Naddador from Norway named the country “Snowland” as it was snowing when he arrived, and the Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarosson named it after himself.
3. When was Iceland founded?
Iceland was founded during the Viking age of exploration in the 9th century, the Vikings sailing from Norway and other Nordic settlements to stake claims to land on the island. From Iceland, they sailed further to Greenland and Vinland (North America, named by Leif Eríksson, Erik’s son, after the wild grapes he saw on the shore).
There were no recorded human settlements before this time, but the island was known to the Greeks and to Irish hermits as Thule. However, “Thule” may refer not only to Iceland but to the other regions in the Arctic; the word was used to describe “the northernmost part of the habitable ancient world”.
A Viking assembly, the Althing, was established after the settlement period. Things, from the Old Norse þing, is used to describe these parliaments, and the name survives in the place names across Northern Europe, such as Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Dingwall (Scotland), Tynwald (Isle of Man), and Tingwall (Shetland and Orkney).
In 1397, a Scandinavian union was formed at Kalmar, Sweden (Kalmar Union) bringing the separate kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under a single monarch. Iceland’s chieftains swore allegiance to the Norwegian king, and rule passed to the Danish crown. The rulers of Denmark increased their hold on the country in the 17th century. Iceland won the right for home rule in 1904, but later chose to break all ties with Denmark. The Icelandic republic was established in 1944.
4. What is the language of Iceland?
Icelandic (íslenska) is the official language of Iceland. It is a North Germanic language belonging to the West Scandinavian branch, along with Faroese and Norwegian.
The sagas were written in Old Icelandic, also called Old Norse, but Icelanders today can still read them without difficulty (although pronunciations have changed).
Icelandic managed to survive largely in its original form, even in the face of Danish control, due to Iceland’s geographical isolation and the language’s continued use for literary purposes throughout the centuries.
English is also taught as a second language and is widely spoken in Iceland.
5. What is the currency of Iceland?
Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK – Íslensk króna; “crown”).
Its currency shares its name with the currencies of other Nordic countries–Danish krone, Swedish krona and Norwegian krone–as they all participated in the Scandinavian Monetary Union in the 19th century, pegging their currencies to gold at the same level as each other. Iceland separated its monetary policy from Denmark when the union dissolved before World War I.
6. What is Iceland’s climate?
Despite its high latitude and proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a temperate climate thanks to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
About 11 percent of the country is covered with permanent ice cap and Iceland has Europe’s largest glacier (Vatnajökull), but it enjoys verdant summers, with snow rarely staying on the ground for days.
In the capital and largest city, Reykjavík, located south of the country, the average temperature for summer is 12 degrees Celsius and around 1 to 2 degrees for winter. Still cold–but not as cold as the winters you may experience in Canada or Russia.
In 2018, the capital’s annual average temperature was 5.5 degrees. Iceland’s meteorological agency reports that “[t]he absolute maximum in Reykjavík was 23.5°C, recorded on 29 July and the absolute minimum was -9.0°C on 19 January.”
However, Iceland’s weather is fickle and may change frequently throughout the day. Make sure to check weather forecasts before heading out, and wear (or bring) layers so you can adapt to the weather changes quickly.
7. When is the best time to visit Iceland?
This will depend on your intended activities. Odyssey Traveller organises Culture & Wilderness tours to Iceland with departures in May and September. These months are the “shoulder season” months in spring and fall, respectively, between the high season of summer (June to August) and the off-season (November to March). This means you get to visit Iceland when it is not too busy with tourists trooping there for the warmer months, but also not when it’s too desolate or too cold that you miss out on certain activities.
Of course, Iceland is a great destination year-round, and the best time to visit will ultimately depend on your personal preferences. Summer is also the time to experience the “midnight sun” in Iceland. Midnight sun is a phenomenon observed north of the Arctic and south of the Antarctic, during which these regions receive continuous sunlight for six months. In Iceland, the sun sets just before midnight from May to August. In winter, many visitors brave the cold to observe the Northern Lights.
8. Can you visit Iceland without a visa?
Citizens of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States (see full list) need not apply for a visa to Iceland for a stay of up to 90 days total within the Schengen area.
Iceland joined the Schengen states on March 25, 2001, which means a citizen from the Schengen area can visit Iceland without a visa.
If you are a citizen of a country belonging to the European Economic Area, you need not apply for a visa to Iceland; a passport valid during the time of your stay will suffice.
Citizens of countries not on this list must apply for a visa at the applicable embassy or consulate before travelling to Iceland. Click through to see more information, or check with your consulate.
9. What are the places to visit in Iceland?
Iceland’s climate, dramatic geological activity, and unique history provide visitors with amazing landscapes and experiences.
The country’s distinctive topography is the result of a history of tectonic movement and volcanic eruption. For photographer Robert Ormerod, its similarity to the moon inspired his journey through the country, in pursuit of its most extra-terrestrial sites. These are both natural and man-made, as he also takes in Iceland’s distinctive satellites and geothermal domes.
Ormerod details how Iceland was actually visited by Apollo astronauts in the late 1960s. As BBC Travel reports:
NASA believed it was essential for its astronauts to prepare for their intragalactic journey by training in the most otherworldly terrain on Earth. After scouring the globe, officials determined that the Moon’s lunar landscape was strikingly similar to that just outside Húsavík, a quiet 2,300-person fishing community on Iceland’s northern coast. NASA sent 32 astronauts to train in its crater-filled terrain in 1965 and 1967. Incredibly, of the 12 humans who have ever walked on the Moon, nine first touched down in Húsavík – including Armstrong himself.
Let’s look at Iceland’s many magical, otherworldly places.
The Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site that witnessed the establishment of the Viking Althing in 930. Fragments of the structure that housed the assembly remain, 50 booths built from turf and stone. Thingvellir is also where you can experience walking between two continents, as the Eurasian and American continental plates meet here, visible on the earth’s surface and continuously splitting Iceland into two at a rate of 1 mm to 18 mm per year.
Thingvellir is part of a popular tourist route called the “Golden Circle”, which also includes the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.
Geysir is derived from the Old Norse verb that means “to gush”, and you can immediately tell why it acquired this name from the intense geothermal activity in the area. The Geysir Geothermal Area is dotted with hot pools and vents, including the earliest documented geyser in Europe, the Great Geysir, and its neighbour, Strokkur. Strokkur is the more active of the two, erupting every ten minutes and shooting water 20 metres into the air.
Nearby is the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall, which tumbles down from a great height of 32 metres (105 feet).
The Vatnajökull National Park stretches across more than 1,400,000 hectares of volcanic and glacial land, nearly 14% of Iceland’s territory. Two of ten volcanoes within the park are among the most active in Iceland. The park contains Iceland’s natural treasures and incredibly varied landscapes. Its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2019 signals the need for its conservation, as the glaciers are in a steady process of decline due to climate change.
In South Iceland, the black sand beach and imposing basalt columns in Reynisfjara is also well worth the trip.
The Blue Lagoon is another popular tourist attraction, named for its milky-blue geothermal seawater. The lagoon, set in a black lava field, was formed in 1976 near the Svartsengí geothermal power plant and makes for a striking view. The water has temperature at a soothing and relaxing 38 degrees Celsius and is believed to have healing abilities. The Blue Lagoon company has opened a 62-room luxury hotel in 2018 and operates with sustainability in mind.
Iceland is also a great place to view the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, a natural light display caused by the collision of gas particles electrically-charged by the sun and gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. The sun’s multi-million-degree temperature charges protons and electrons, which escape via sunspot or coronal hole, and are swept towards Earth by solar wind. The lights are only visible in the northern and southern poles because Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles and thus the particles are not as strongly repelled as they would be closer to the equator. Once in Earth’s atmosphere, the particles collide with one another and dispel the energy in different colours depending on the types of gas particles and the distance from the Earth.
If you are travelling on a September departure to Iceland with Odyssey Traveller, you may be in luck to see them, as the best time to see the Northern Lights is between September to April. However, visibility of the Northern Lights depends on several factors, including cloud cover, the phase of the moon (a full moon will make the aurora borealis less visible), and solar activity level. Check the aurora forecast to avoid disappointment!
Of course, your first port of entry will be the capital, Reykjavik, where nearly 40 percent of Iceland’s total population reside. Visit the Old Harbour area, once a service harbour that is now a cosmopolitan tourist attraction, and go on a walking history tour of Old Reykjavik in the heart of the city. The National Museum contains artefacts that tell the story of Iceland’s history. View the eye-catching Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja, a place of worship for most Icelanders, as a huge majority (80%) are members of the Lutheran State Church.
10. What is Iceland’s cuisine like?
Icelandic cuisine is traditionally dominated by meat, especially lamb, and fish. Sheep roam the countryside and are reared the way they’ve been traditionally raised from the time of the early settlers, and fish feature prominently as the country is surrounded by the ocean. Flavours of traditional food typically reflect the method of its preservation – from pickling and drying, to curing or smoking.
During the Nordic month of Porri (late January to early February), many Icelanders enjoy porramatur: a selection of traditional Icelandic food. Cured meat and fish products are sliced and served with dense rye bread, butter, and brennivin, a clear, unsweetened schnapps. This spread of dishes, prepared as a tribute to Icelandic culture, will typically include:
- hákarl: putrefied shark cubes
- sviðasulta: a brawn or “head cheese” made from the head of a sheep
- lundabaggi: sheep’s fat
- hrútspungar: pickled ram’s testicles
These days, the diet is becoming modernised and is increasingly closer to European in style.
Travellers on the Odyssey small group tour of Iceland will visit a farm in Fridheimar to learn how fruit and vegetables are grown using geothermal energy and during short daylight periods. They will also have the opportunity to meet a farmer in Bjarnarhofn, and can sample his shark meat – a likely polarising delicacy!
If you’d like to learn more, do join Odyssey Traveller’s Culture & Wilderness tours to Iceland with departures in May and September. This small group tour is a 16-day circumnavigation of this fascinating island, designed for the mature-aged traveller. We experience Iceland’s spectacular glaciers, geysers, and waterfalls, as we cruise among Arctic icebergs. Our fully escorted small group tour offers fresh insights into the history of Iceland, from settlement to the present day.
The encircled numbers on the map below refer to the number of nights spent in each destination, with green indicating the starting point, and the red circle the end point.
About Odyssey Traveller
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and Britain. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.
We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.
Odyssey Traveller also has a Loyalty Program for regular travellers. Membership of the alumni starts when you choose to take your first international small group tour with Odyssey Traveller. To see the discounts and benefits of being a Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Diamond alumni member with us, please see this page.